For 840 years, the Great Mosque of Al Nuri in Mosul has been a symbol of cultural beauty and religious significance. Its 45-metre leaning minaret, Al Hadba, was so synonymous with Iraq’s second city that Mosul became known by the same name.
However, in the past four years it became a symbol of the losses that Iraq has suffered as it fell victim to the ISIS reign of terror. In June 2014, it was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared his false "caliphate" and three years later, Iraqis watched in disbelief as ISIS fighters blew up the historic mosque.
On Monday, the UAE started a new chapter in the story of Al Nuri mosque, with a commitment to rebuild the mosque in five years. In the largest project of its type in Iraq, the UAE has formed a partnership with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Unesco and other regional entities to restore and revive the mosque in a project set to cost $50.4 million.
The UAE Minister of Culture, Noura Al Kaabi, visited Baghdad to launch the project, emphasising that the image of Al Nuri Mosque will again become synonymous with hope and cultural revival.
The security situation made it impossible to make the announcement from Mosul but the capital was the next best choice.
From the majestic Assyrian Hall of the Iraq Museum, Ms Al Kaabi said that the “UAE supports the efforts of our Iraqi brothers in developments, stability and pushing the wheels of reconstruction especially for cultural and historic sites”.
Among those in attendance for the signing ceremony were two archeologists from Mosul who were clearly moved by the event.
“We are delighted with the UAE’s involvement,” Khair Aldeen Ahmed, an excavator from Mosul, told The National. “We feel close to them, we are one people, our ties are by blood relations, culture, history – it all binds us.
“We have yet to see a real project of reconstruction come to Mosul. There is so much destruction all around. This is the first tangible project.”
Mr Ahmed was one of several Maslawis – people from Mosul – attending Monday’s event.
One of the strengths of this project is its inclusiveness. Other partners in the project include the Sunni Endowment of Iraq, which owns the mosque, the Iccrom-Athar regional conservation centre in Sharjah, and Organisation of Islamic Conference.
From meeting students of anthropology at Baghdad University to archaeologists from Mosul, the whirlwind trip by the Minister of Culture set the tone that consultation with Iraqis will remain a priority.
Regular quarterly meetings and an expanded community engagement plan, all aim to ensure the success of the project and avoid any tainting of it by corruption.
Unesco’s team in Baghdad met with Ms Al Kaabi and the Iraqi delegation, and spoke of their eagerness to begin work now that the agreement was signed after a record time of only three weeks.
Speaking to The National in Baghdad, she said: “After two months from the Kuwait conference to rebuild Iraq, the UAE was the first to start on such a historic project that means a lot to the Iraqi people and also region.”
The scale and significance of the project in large part lies in the symbolism of the Al Nuri mosque for Iraqis and for the UAE’s efforts to curb extremism and terrorism.
“Mosul unfortunately is in a post-war state, and not any war but a victim to a horrific extremist group,” Ms Al Kaabi said. “For people to wake up and not see the minaret they have always known is a great loss. To see it rise again will also help to reconstruct and revive Iraq.
“The UAE aims to revive, to bring hope, and this is what this project represents. It is important for us to be in the business of revival, whether us in the UAE, or the Iraqi people, or Unesco, what is important to us is how it will impact people, restore hope, and job creation is so important.”
Ms Al Kaabi said a central element to the reconstruction effort is to foster tolerance and the true spirit of Islam, as a sharp contrast to the ideology of the extremists who destroyed the mosque.
Iraq’s Minister of Culture, Faryad Ravandozi, recalled Al Hadba as “Iraq’s tallest and most beautiful” minaret from his days of studying in Mosul.
The pain of the fall of Al Hadba cannot be underestimated but making it rise again and with it the spirit of Mosul, presents a rare opportunity of hope among the rubble.